In this photo, people walk by chain stores Banana Republic and H&M on Regent Street in London, Friday, Sept. 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)
At a time when fashion trends come and go before you can even buy into them, a very important element of retail consumption has seemingly disappeared: quality.
I remember when the word “quality” was only used if a company could prove that the product had features superior to the competitors. Now the word is used for products as mundane and as commonplace as toilet tissue.
In the last century there has been a major shift in retailing. The “more is more” mentality has permeated in an age of constant consumption. Instant gratification and disposability dominates the way we buy clothes.
In 2009, according to the The Guardian, U.S. consumers spent 2.98 percent of their income on clothing. This is down from 4.78 percent in 1988, and 9 percent in 1950. But don’t let the percentages fool you. It’s not that consumers are buying fewer items (in fact they are buying more): It’s that the items are getting less expensive.
There are a few opportunities to get real bargains, but for the most part, big retailers are banking on the fact that consumers will purchase more frequently if the items are, well, cheap.
Take for example the game-changing Spanish retail chain Zara. According to an August 2011 article from the sustainable fashion design website Ecouterre, the life cycle of a Zara garment is about two weeks. In just 14 days, Zara can design, produce, deliver, display and sell a piece of clothing. It used to be that a retailer could expect four visits a year from a loyal customer; with its revolutionary business model, Zara moved that needle to 17 visits.
Millennials that have grown up with instant and replaceable clothing have never known how to truly appreciate quality. They haven’t been conditioned to wait for things they want, because “things” have always been so accessible.
The art of planning and building a wardrobe is no longer passed on from one generation to the other. Somewhere along the line, as our media-hungry culture became more and more reliant on what – and who – everyone else was wearing, individual style was compromised. Clothing has become more about dressing for the moment and less about investing in pieces that have a long life.
We regularly hear people say, “I love my car,” or “I’d be lost without my computer,” but rarely do you hear, “I’ve owned this dress for five years and I still love the way it looks.” For me, this loss of product appreciation is like the loss of one of the five senses.
With the onset of e-commerce, something tangible like fashion is brought down to a two-dimensional experience.
Forget fit for a moment, how about the tactile experience? The way a piece of clothing feels to the touch — on your skin? There’s snuggly like a petroleum-based polar fleece and then there’s snuggly like 12-ply, hand-knit cashmere. Yes, the prices are going to be very different, but the experience is worlds apart.
If it feels like we are constantly being manipulated by retailers, we are. However, we can fight back by exercising our right to appreciate. We can elevate our awareness of how things are made or the many steps it takes to create a particular fabric. We can consider why so few of an item might be made and how that results in more individuality. This is the essence of how I run my business.
One may argue – and many do – that my price points are too high. They are high. But not arbitrarily so. Prices are set to reflect the time, craftsmanship and technical skill behind the clothing. It stands to reason — to me — that a handmade suit crafted by expert tailors costs significantly more than a machine-made suit made on an assembly line.
Most importantly, we need to shift away from the “need-to-have-it-right-now” mentality that drives this ongoing frenzy of consumption. The act of getting and then keeping clothing you love, need and appreciate is infinitely more satisfying.
So, reevaluate the items hanging in your wardrobe. Invest in pieces that will be with you for longer than a season. Rediscover the gratification you get from wearing an item you love time and time again. Remember the art of appreciation.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.